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Preliminary Bow Exercises by Ivo-Jan van der Werff

Each exercise is demonstrated on the following video:

Exercise 1 (video clip 1)

Rest the middle of the bow on the D or G string. Make sure that the upper arm is parallel with the bow and that the elbow is neither too high nor too low. The wrist should be curved slightly downward, the hand being just below the level of the forearm thereby “suspending” the bow. Moving only from the shoulder (which should be relaxed downward), keeping the shape of the arm and its relation to the bow constant and the bow always at right angles to the strings, move the bow from one string to the next. Go beyond the C string (so the bow hair even touches the wood of the viola) and beyond the A string in a similar manner. Make sure the movement is slow, even, and relaxed. The shoulder acts as a pivot.

Repeat this exercise but now resting the bow at the point, and again with the bow at the heel. Be aware of any general differences in the movement of the arm.

Exercises 2

One thing that is very rarely practised, but vitally important, is actually “putting” the bow on the string. The quality of sound we make depends as much (if not more) on our approach to the string as what we do when it is there.

Exercise 2a (video clip 2)

Stand (or sit) with the viola in position. Swing the bow arm in a big arc from a resting position (i.e., by your side) away from the body (to the right), then up and over the viola so you approach the string from above. In this way you are working with gravity. Settle the bow on the string in the middle. Observe the shape of the arm, wrist, and fingers. If they are incorrect, decide what needs to be changed and go through the motion again. Once you are satisfied, with the bow resting on the string, feel the weight of the arm via the hand (ultimately the index finger) going through the bow. Do not use “force” or tension. The feeling should be like sitting on a very comfortable chair. The springs (strings) support your weight, and your weight presses down in a relaxed manner into the chair (viola). It should be a secure and easy feeling. Try breathing in; then, on the out breath, let the shoulders drop and settle into a relaxed position.

This simple exercise should initially be practised at the heel, middle, and point, and on each string in turn.

Exercise 2b (video clip 3)

When you have done Exercise 2a and feel comfortable, try “walking” up and down the bow in the following manner. Place the bow at the heel; feeling relaxed, note the position of the arm. Then raise the bow a few inches above the string and place it back down again but an inch toward the point. Do this repeatedly until you reach the point and then work back toward the heel. Make sure you feel the weight of the bow arm through the bow and into the string each time. In this way you will learn to be comfortable, relaxed, and familiar with every part of the bow. When you play with whole bows, you will feel more relaxed and make a richer, more fluid sound.

Exercise 2c (video clip 4)

Once you have done Exercise 2b satisfactorily, this time when you place the bow on the string (at the heel), release it as in a short martelé stroke and swing it around in an arc to repeat the action. Really exaggerate the movement of the bow arm so it literally makes a circle in the air.

Do this also at the point (on an up bow).

Now repeat Exercise 2c again, but this time using an increasingly long stroke until a whole bow is used. Next, rather than repeating either up or down bows, play down–up, down–up, but still moving in an arc at each end as far as the arm will allow after the bow leaves the string. Gradually reduce this movement until you are playing normal whole bows.

Going beyond where we need to is very good practice, as then everything we do on the viola becomes well within our limitations. With the bow, if we can imagine it is far longer than it actually is and any movements associated with it are practised beyond what we need, then we can create a much more comfortable and flexible physical arena in which to work, one with far less tension. The following two exercises highlight this idea.

Exercise 3 (video clip 5)

Holding the bow normally, play whole bows on each string, but travel beyond the point (in as straight a line as possible) till the arm is fully extended. Likewise travel beyond the heel making sure you keep in the plane of the strings you are on.

Exercise 4 (video clip 6)

Holding the bow between the heel and middle, play whole bows (make sure you play right to the heel).

Make sure in these exercises that only the bow moves, not the viola.

These exercises will help develop a more fluent bowing arm and get rid of the notion that the heel and point of the bow are the most extreme physical points in our bow technique. Anyone who experiences tension on approaching the heel or point will benefit greatly from this simple idea.

After practising in these ways for a while, when returning to bowing normally you should find the bow feels much shorter and easier to manage.

Exercise 5 (video clip 7)

Try a few whole bows on each string but only using the fingers on the stick as indicated below, the idle fingers being suspended above the stick.

 1–2–3;  2–3–4;  1–2–4;  1–3–4;  1–2;  1–3;  1–4;  2–3;  2–4;  3–4;  1;  2;  3;  4.

Also, try playing without the support of the thumb. You might need to tilt the stick away from you and make sure the fingers are fully around the stick in order not to drop the bow.

This is an incredibly useful exercise in order to discover exactly what role each finger plays. It also develops strength in each finger and each combination of fingers and will lead to an absolute security of the fingers on the bow.

Many players suffer a lack of security of the fourth finger on the stick, due in large part to either a bad hand position or to a general lack of contact, especially toward the point. The latter is not necessarily a bad thing but in general, the more contact, the safer and more secure you will become.

One method I have tried, in order to cure a fourth finger that refuses to have constant contact with the stick, is to place a small piece of  blue tack or something similarly sticky between the finger and the bow. This is just an added help, a feeling so different that the student becomes much more aware of it.

Of course, there are many players who have small hands and arms who might not physically be able to keep the fourth finger on the stick all the way to the point. Every player has to make some compromises and develop his or her own way of playing due to individual physical characteristics, but I am outlining certain, basic ideals which every player should consider.


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